Gruesome body of a saint on display!

The Catholic church has always enjoyed displaying the body of this and that saint – or parts of their body – for the reverence of pilgrims. Walking around London the other day – before the Coronavirus lockdown – I found one saint I’d not encountered before. His 17th century body is in pieces – for a grim reason!

Body of a 17th century saint on display in London

In the Catholic cathedral of Westminster in London I chanced upon the weirdest saint’s relic I’ve seen in a while. It’s the dismembered body of a 17th century saint who was executed in a very gruesome way then stitched back together again!

John Southworth (pictured above) was born in 1592 to what was described as a “recusant” Catholic family. That means a family paying fines in order to keep practising their Catholic faith, which was now no longer the religion of England.

Under the Tudor monarchs from Henry VIII to Elizabeth I, England had transformed from being a Roman Catholic country to adopting the new Protestant faith.

It had been a stormy period of change. The English monarchs had made themselves head of the church and overthrown the authority of the pope. Anybody still obeying Rome could face a traitor’s death.

Being a Catholic priest resulted in being branded or even executed. Undeterred, Southworth decided to become a priest and trained in France before returning to England.

The body of this saint ends up in four parts!

He faced spells of imprisonment over the years. Eventually, under the rule of Oliver Cromwell, Southworth was sentenced to death. This took the form of being hanged, drawn and quartered. To be more precise, his body was dragged through the streets. Then he was hanged but brought down while still alive.

Then his manhood was cut off, his intestines pulled out, his heart brought forth and finally, Southworth was chopped into four bits. The idea was that these dismembered body parts would be displayed in different places to warn others not to commit the same crime.

Spain acquires the body of this English saint

The Spanish Ambassador to London, a Catholic, bought the whole body – dismembered – for the princely sum of 40 guineas. He then had it embalmed and sewn back together. It ended up in a lead coffin at the English College in Douai, France where Southworth had trained to be a priest.

FIND OUT MORE: A story of heresy and murder in Spain

In the 1920s, as the college faced having to move because of a new housing development, it was decided to send the bones to the Catholic Cathedral at Westminster in London. This isn’t Westminster Abbey by the way.

That was originally a Catholic monastery in the Middle Ages but had become a Protestant abbey after the Tudors and the Reformation. The Catholic Cathedral was build in the 19th century and you can visit it near Victoria tube station.

If you do visit the cathedral, you’ll see the rather ghoulish spectacle of John Southworth’s dismembered body in a priest’s garment, gloves, shoes and a mask. Underneath all this is presumably a broken skeleton by now.

Ten places of execution in London

London has always had its interesting landmarks but none could be so ghoulish as its regular places of execution. They are not always easy to spot now but let me give you some ghoulish clues!

Up until the 19th century, there were certain places where you could be guaranteed to catch a hanging, burning or beheading – should you wish.

Unfortunately, many Londoners did wish – as it was viewed as a macabre form of entertainment. So – where would you have seen such a dreadful spectacle? Where are the places of execution in London?

  • Tyburn. If you were a commoner, then it was off to Tyburn to be hanged high in the air dancing at the end of a rope for a vast crowd. The location of the triple gallows that entertained so many Londoners was on what is now a traffic island at the intersection of Oxford Street and the Edgware Road. Oxford Street was called Tyburn Road up until the 1700s and the area was semi-rural, effectively the edge of London. This was probably the most popular place of execution in London.
  • Tower Hill. If you were an aristocrat, you could avoid the shame and humiliation of dangling at Tyburn by being beheaded on Tower Hill. Your end was swift provided the executioner was good at his job – and that wasn’t always guaranteed. But for an aristocrat, this was the place of execution for you in London – not the shame of the tree at Tyburn.
  • Lincoln’s Inn Fields. One of the lesser well known places of execution in London. Those conspiring against the life of the monarch might be dispatched at Lincoln’s Inn Fields. Such was the fate of Anthony Babington who plotted against Elizabeth I. Her day out was ruined however by his persistent screams of agony while being hanged, drawn and quartered. He made such a racket that the Queen decided just to behead everybody else involved in the conspiracy.
  • Smithfield. Now being heavily redeveloped, the meat market near Farringdon tube station once rang to the shrieks of Protestants being burned for their faith by Queen Mary Tudor aka “Bloody Mary”. The Catholic Queen was out to reverse the religious reforms of her father Henry VIII using the flames to consume those who had rejected the pope’s authority.
  • Execution Dock. Pirates breathed their last here – in a London location for execution deemed to suit their crime. They had lived by stealing on the waters – and so they would face their end by the river with the tide submerging their bodies. Captain Kidd was hanged at this location.
  • Banqueting House, Whitehall. King Charles I stepped from a first floor window and on to a wooden scaffold to lose his head. When his son Charles II became king, he hunted down those who had signed his father’s death warrant and had them executed a stone’s throw away at Charing Cross. The diarist Samuel Pepys, a bit of a royalist toady by then, wrote an inappropriately merry account of one of those hanging, drawing and quarterings.
  • Kennington. This was south London’s main place of execution. I’ve blogged before about two unfortunately gentlemen who were hanged for the crime of being gay. It surprises me that given the large LGBT population in the area, there is no monument to this injustice.
  • Stratford-le-Bow. Now I knew nothing about this London execution site until recently. But this is where Queen Mary Tudor burned another load of Protestants as part of her ongoing and ultimately unsuccessful attempts to turn Britain back to Catholicism. Thirteen men and women were burned in front of 20,000 people on 27 June 1556.
  • Shooters Hill Crossroads. Little bit further out of town towards Woolwich is where highwaymen were hanged. This was presumably to warn any wannabe Dick Turpins heading towards London that they would meet a grim fate.
  • St Thomas-a-Watering. Right next to the Thomas-a-Becket pub on the Old Kent Road, famous in the 20th century for playing host to gangsters and boxers, was the place of execution for a small group of Catholic friars in 1539. As with Marble Arch and Tyburn, you’re going to need to summon up those powers of imagination to picture the scene now.